Digital Single Lens Reflex (D-SLR) or a compact point and shoot, which is better? As with anything else, it depends on a) your level of commitment and b) how much control do you want.
First things first, why is it called a D-SLR and what makes a D-SLR? Back in the day, a camera was identified by the type of system it used to view and capture the image. Maybe a few of you can remember the old cameras that consisted of the lens, the roll of film, and when you looked through the viewfinder, the image was seen through a hole in the camera body itself, with a couple of small pieces of glass or plastic marking the borders of your image. Those are a perfect example of a point and shoot camera.
A D-SLR is considered a Single Lens Reflex camera because when you look through the viewfinder, you are previewing the image through a single lens. The image passes through the lens of the camera, onto a mirror. The picture is then bounced off of another mirror to correct it from being upside down, and then you see the image. All of this is happening before you even do anything to the camera. When you press the shutter release button, the first mirror slides up and out of the way so the picture gets seen on the sensor behind the lens. Fortunately, the light going into the camera is not bright enough to do damage to the camera’s sensor as it takes the light and turns it into an electrical or digital image. Sometimes, the light can be too bright and eventually burn into a sensor, like when you take too many pictures of the sun. For most people, that’s not an issue. Just be careful.
Okay, now that the Single Lens part is out of the way, why is it called a reflex? Remember the shutter button you pressed? When you did that, the mirror jumped out of the way so the sensor could see the image. Almost like a doctor smacking your knee with one of those annoying little hammers. Tap + jump = reflex. Same concept.
Most people prefer point-and-shoot cameras because with almost all digital point-and-shoot cameras, you see the image before you even push the button, the sensor is exposed all of the time giving you a “live-view”. This is the preferred method of most beginning photographers. The biggest benefit – you can see exactly what you get before you take the picture.
My biggest problem with point-and-shoot cameras, I am a huge control freak. I always have been and always will be. A D-SLR allows you to control almost every aspect of the picture you can control, giving you (theoretically) exactly what you want in a picture. Because cameras now have a screen on the back to view he image, you can adjust your setting on the spot to change the image to your liking.
D-SLRs are more expensive, but they allow control freaks like me a lot more convenience and peace of mind when I’m trying to make sure I got a picture as good as I can get it.
Camera trivia: When you look at the back of a camera to see what the image to see what it looks like before you keep it, or try another shot? That’s called chimping. Supposedly, because a trained chimp could fix the image after seeing it. Chimping or not, I still like being able to evaluate my success or failure on the spot.